After premiering in London to enthusiastic reviews, Emma Rice’s latest production Wise Children has just begun the first stretch of its UK tour, in which Bristol doubtless holds a central part. The play is the first to have come out of Emma Rice’s newly founded company of the same name, titled after Angela Carter’s last published novel (Wise Children, if you follow me), which came out in 1991. A labour of love, this is Rice’s second adaptation of a novel by Carter, after her production of Nights at the Circus in 2006 during her time as artistic director of Cornwall-based company Kneehigh. Bristol is intended to be the main site of her new project, which is both a theatre company and school, the ‘School for Wise Children’, aiming to offer financially accessible theatre training in the South West. Both Rice’s high profile as former artistic director of the Globe and the discussions, positive and negative, that surrounded the foundation of her company set the bar of success intimidatingly high – and Wise Children passes the test with flying colours.
The play follows Dora and Nora Chance, the presumed bastard daughters of famed actor Melchior Hazard. While their biological father ascended to the heights of theatre nobility, Nora and Dora’s career took another, seedier path through the music-hall. Having turned seventy-five and living in their late adoptive grandmother’s house in London, the twins are getting ready to attend their Melchior’s one-hundredth birthday party, to which they’ve received a reluctant last-minute invitation.
Spanning a century, the play takes us from the 1880s to the present day (in that case, the year 1989). The twins count their triumphs but also their losses – chief among them their mother-figure Grandma Chance (Katy Owen, flamboyant and shameless in the garb of an old lady in the nude). In characteristic Rice fashion, Wise Children also often bursts into songs (composed by Ian Ross, who previously collaborated with Rice as part of Kneehigh) paying homage to Shakespeare but also to more recent influences, including no less than Cindy Lauper.
The play turns Dora Chance’s original monologue into a multi-generational duet, giving more space to Nora in the narrative process. Each of the twins is interpreted by three different actors, of different ages, races, and genders, and by four puppets (created by Lyndie Wright). The same applies to their putative and de facto fathers, Melchior and Peregrine Hazard, also portrayed at several ages. The actors all bring a distinct quality to the various eras of the protagonists’ lives: Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt are particularly delightful as the twins’ older incarnations, looking back on their younger selves (Omari Douglas and Melissa James, who bring a non-stop energy to their roles) with a tenderness tainted with the occasional regret.
Rice undeniably ‘has got her teeth’ into Carter’s text, as the play’s haunting theme-song suggests. The production cuts right to the chase, doing away with a good chunk of the novel – exeunt Carter’s portrayal of the world of cinema and television, as well as the characters of the younger Chance/Hazard generation who featured in the book. It focuses instead on the book’s exploration of family lines, paternity, incest, and legitimacy, and its hymn to the stage and the Shakespearean canon – and does so with perceptible enthusiasm. Every now and then the characters utter a Carterian exclamation, confirming the author’s talent for one-liners (‘It’s every woman’s tragedy that, after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator’ gets the whole room laughing).
The scenery is a versatile trailer designed by Vicki Mortimer, which becomes Grandma Chance’s house, the twins’ backstage space, and, briefly, a screen. Much like the interchangeable cast, it is an ode to mutability and adaptation. London is briefly suggested through a melancholy animation designed by Simon Baker. A play about transmission, estrangement and reconciliation, Wise Children artfully revels in contradictory states of joy and sadness, transgression and nostalgia, never forgetting the novel’s main motto – ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’
- Musical Drama
- Adapted and directed by Emma Rice, based on the novel by Angela Carter
- Composer and Musical Director: Ian Ross
- Choreography by Etta Murfitt
- Cast includes: Sam Archer, Ankur Bahl, Omari Douglas, Mirabelle Gremaud, Paul Hunter, Melissa James, Bettrys Jones, Etta Murfitt, Katy Owen, Mike Shepherd, Gareth Snook
- Bristol Old Vic
- In Bristol until 16 February 2019; touring until 6 April 2019